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My TechCraft Article: Should You Sit Near SMEs?

Oct 15, 2007 • general

Tech CraftI published an article in TechCraft last week called "Should You Sit Near SMEs?" TechCraft is the eNewsletter that accompanies the Technical Writers of India (TWI) mailing list.

If you already have a Yahoo ID, here's the link to the article -- scroll down to the September 2007 PDF copy. It's in the "Legally Bland" section. (I'm still not sure what this section title could possibly mean, but it's where my article is.)

In case you can't access the article, the gist of the article is yes, you should sit near SMEs. You gain a wealth of information just by shortening the distance required for communication, because SMEs are far too lazy to seek out the lowly technical writer and provide updates about every little detail that has changed. You also build rapport and teach the SMEs about the role of the technical writer.

In this Tech Craft issue, I'm published below Sarah O'Keefe, who is an XML/Framemaker guru and has a blog called Palimpsest. The editor, Rahul Prabhakar, also has a blog called When the Muse Strikes. Both are superb names for blogs -- Palimpsest is a manuscript page whose text has been erased and upon which new words have been written -- a name suggesting that blogs are journals of our ever-changing thoughts. When the Muse Strikes indicates that the blog posts are muse-driven, and not the kind of posts you see some bloggers cranking out hour upon hour.

In case you can't access the article, I've included it below:

Should You Sit Near SMEs?

By Tom Johnson

I recently had the experience of sitting in contrasting locations on IT projects: first in the same cube as the lead subject matter expert (SME), and then in my own cube in another room, separated from other SMEs. As a result, I've thought a lot about where technical writers should sit during an IT project.

While having close proximity to a SME may seem like a good idea, there are some disadvantages -- namely, constant disruptions, a barrage of irrelevant details, and difficulty in arranging meetings. Still, the downsides are worth it for the knowledge you gain.

Disadvantages of Sitting Next to SMEs

When you sit next to a SME, you're often right next to the source of information. But while this proximity may seem ideal, SMEs can be tough cube partners. SMEs often ride a roller coaster of emotions as they troubleshoot problems. One minute they're swearing at the computer because an error message prevents them from finishing a configuration. Then an hour later, after solving the problem, they're singing and saying little cheerful self-directed hoorahs. Then the next minute, it's back to cursing like a sailor. The roller coaster -- riding high when they solve a problem, riding low when a problem outwits them -- can be a little wearisome.

Some SMEs like to talk problems through, and they'll have a direct conversation with their computer all by themselves. You don't realize it's a one-way conversation at first, until you unknowingly say "huh?" If you try to join the one-way conversation, the SME won't even realize you're there.

SMEs may also be constantly getting up to go to the servers and data center room. Going and coming, talking to themselves or to other developers -- they can be a lot more active and collaborative than we would prefer.

Sitting next to a SME who tries to be too helpful can also be detrimental. Many SMEs like talking about their area of expertise, and explanations they offer can go into excruciating detail beyond what you need to know. The SMEs can usually tear down and rebuild their product from scratch. So when you ask a question, their response may reveal an endless number of unnecessary details irrelevant to the user guide. You often don't need to know how the insides work, just the steps the user needs to perform.

Another problem in sitting next to SMEs is the scarcity of formal meetings. An official meeting, though needed, doesn't seem necessary because you're right there behind them; it seems as if you can talk anytime. Yet the SME is almost always busy (except for those spontaneous games of solitaire and trips to the snack room). The formal meetings never seem to materialize.

The fact that the SME always seems too busy for you may fill you with resentment. The insinuation is that his or her job is the all-important one. The SME has little time for you or for "documentation". He or she is building something extremely important, while you are merely describing his or her work.

Advantages of Sitting Next to SMEs

Sitting next to the SME carries all of these annoyances -- the disruptions, the unnecessary detail, the lack of formal meetings -- but sitting close to a SME one can also make you feel like an integral part of the project. You gain first-hand knowledge of the issues and are rarely out of the communication loop.

Information often comes in random spurts. While something is installing, or when the SME hits a wall and needs a break, or when the SME finishes a milestone and says an exuberant "Yes!" it's the perfect time to throw out a little question. Little questions lead to follow-up questions, which trick the SME into dedicating more time to providing information than he or she had originally planned.

The SME often finds it invigorating to explain technical details. It makes him or her feel extremely intelligent (especially talking in acronyms). Although many technical writers believe SMEs don't want to help them, in reality SMEs enjoy talking about their work. These small crumbs of information the SME constantly hands you lead to a significant meal after a while.

Additionally, if there's an unplanned change from the design documents, it's often apparent from the SME's actions and running [self] commentary. You can pick up on workarounds, issues, upcoming deadlines, and be much more in-tune with the progress and direction of the project.

Most important, sitting next to the SMEs helps you build rapport with them. If your contact with developers is limited only to formal meetings led by a project manager, you'll most likely never get to really know the SMEs. Without a good relationship, they may be less inclined to help you -- not bothering to explain their acronyms and providing almost no review of the documentation you submit. On the other hand, if you've become friends with them, the friendship can motivate them to cooperate.

Sitting near SMEs helps you glean information from them, but SMEs also take away information from you: they learn what a technical writer/communicator does. They learn the type of task-based knowledge you need, the value of the work you produce, your methods and tools. Often times we assume SMEs know our role and understand our needs. In reality, SMEs often have a very little understanding of what we do. Our presence helps them understand the role of technical communication.

Last year I interviewed Emma Hamer, a performance management consultant in Canada, for a Tech Writer Voices podcast. She firmly believed project teams should be physically grouped together in the workplace. She said employees should be mobile, functionally grouped according to the projects they're on -- not remotely located and sectioned off in cubes.

Although in many situations sitting next to the SMEs isn't possible (because you're assigned to sit somewhere else), if you can carry over a laptop and temporarily reside near the SMEs for an hour or two, it can make a tremendous difference in the quality of information you deliver.

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By the way, be sure to check out Emma's blog/site. Also, if you want to hear an audio version of this same general concept, see this carcast I did on Tech Writer Voices.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.